Nicholas Confessore on David Brooks

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If you ask liberals who their favorite conservative pundit is, odds are they will name New York Times columnist David Brooks—a writer with a reputation for perceptive social observation and less of an appetite for partisan red meat than the Bill Kristols and Charles Krauthammers of the world. But in a 2004 book review, Washington Monthly editor Nicholas Confessore—who, incidentally, now shares a platform with Brooks as a New York Times reporter—argued that Brooks’s career as a public intellectual was a Jekyll and Hyde act, with Brooks the Journalist too often eclipsed by Brooks the Hack.

I suspect I’m not the only one who has noticed that the quality of David Brooks’s Times column varies wildly from week to week. One day, he’s funny, unpredictable, insightful; you read along, glad that the Times has given this man a permanent place in its pages. Three days later, he’s bloviating like Michael Savage, and Maureen Dowd doesn’t seem so silly anymore. But if you peruse Brooks’s considerable pre-Timesian oeuvre, you’ll find that the same inconsistency is evident throughout his work. There is Brooks the Journalist. And there is Brooks the Hack.

Brooks the Journalist got his start working the police beat in Chicago; today, nearly alone among those conservative pundits who habitually bash the press for its laziness and myopia, Brooks still actually ventures out into the real world to do his own reporting on what it holds. Often when reading his best work, you feel that he’s perfectly explained or captured something you knew to be true but couldn’t find precisely the right words for. He is a keen observer, adept at distilling his reporting into generalizations that illuminate American life. The most famous of these is, of course, the bohemian bourgeoisie, or Bobos, the upscale, older liberals who “combined the countercultural sixties and the achieving eighties into one social ethos,” as Brooks put it in his best-selling book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. Bobos was a best-seller not only because it captured the mores of middle-aged, blue-state boomers—people who wear expedition-quality anoraks to shovel snow and spend thousands of dollars on brand-new dinner tables designed to look worn and authentic—but also because he was sympathetic to his subjects. (A wise move, as they were also his audience.) “I’m a member of this class,” Brooks assured readers. “We’re not so bad.”

Indeed, such people enjoy reading Brooks the Journalist precisely because he is one of the few right-leaning pundits who doesn’t seem to believe that liberals are evil. Though conservative, Brooks the Journalist is reflective rather than bombastic; his zingers barely singe, let alone burn. To put things in Brooksian terms, he’s a conservative, but the kind you’d bring home to discuss politics over $17-a-pound artisanal goat cheese and organic chardonnay bottled by third-generation French peasants. It’s no wonder the Times felt comfortable putting him on the op-ed page.

But there is also Brooks the Hack. While Brooks the Journalist is honest and self-critical, Brooks the Hack is willing to carry water for his political allies. He opines that the Bush administration is “drunk on truth serum” and “exceptionally forthright” about its policies. He unsheathes the marvelous sophistry that “our government couldn’t even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq—thank goodness, too, because any ‘plan’ hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality.” (Actually, technocrats at the Departments of Defense and State did hatch a pretty good plan. Alas, Brooks’s fellow travelers among the Pentagon’s civilian appointees ignored it.) He insists that pro-war neoconservatives “travel in widely different circles and don’t actually have much contact with one another,” when in fact a game of “Two Degrees of Richard Perle” would get you just about every member of this alleged neocon diaspora.

Similarly, Brooks the Hack indulges in predictable—and frequently dishonest—caricatures of Democrats. He once wrote that “upscale areas everywhere” voted for Al Gore, even though a cursory check of census data reveals that seven of the ten richest counties in America voted for George W. Bush in 2000. When it began to look like John Kerry would carry the Democratic banner in 2004, Brooks argued that the Democrats “won’t nominate a guy unless his family had an upper-deck berth on the Mayflower”—this of a party whose last five nominees included a Georgia peanut farmer, a guy raised by a working-class single mom in Arkansas, and another born to Greek immigrants. Yet Brooks the Hack seems to revel in cheap shots, such as implying that the term “neocon” was anti-Semitic—“con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish,’” he recently wrote in the Times.

More broadly, whereas Brooks the Journalist unfurls grand abstractions that illuminate essential truths about American life, Brooks the Hack peddles unreliable generalizations that describe the world as he and his friends wish it to be. When Brooks set out to describe the differences between red and blue America—by driving a whopping sixty-five miles from Bethesda, Maryland, to Franklin County, Pennsylvania—he produced an article replete with seemingly knowing observations that turned out to be factually wrong. Brooks says few blue staters “could name even five NASCAR drivers”; but as reporter Sasha Issenberg noted in Philadelphia magazine, three of the five top markets for the Winston Cup are in blue states. Brooks says that red America is home shopping country, but it turns out that QVC’s audiences skew toward affluent, suburban blue staters. Brooks says you can’t spend more than $20 at a restaurant in Franklin County, when in fact it’s possible to blow $50 on veal medallions and wild-rice pilaf at the bed-and-breakfast where Brooks himself had spent the night.

It’s true that Brooks’s conservatism leads him to smart ideas that a more liberal columnist probably wouldn’t conceive. But it’s also true that his hankering after movement cred accounts for most of what is dishonest and sloppy in his ideas. Eventually, Brooks will have to decide ex-
actly who he wants to be. 

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From “Paradise Glossed,” June 2004. Nicholas Confessore is now a reporter for the New York Times.

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